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Most conversations are filled with niceties – people waiting for you to shut up so that they can share whatever they’ve already deemed to be more important than whatever you’re in the process of saying.  I’ve always been a very inward person. I’m not a big talker. While others could go on for hours about what they think on any given topic, I prefer to keep things concise. I’ve come to realize that no matter how much people care about you, their primary interests will always lie inward. It’s just human nature.

When I journal I don’t have to worry about other people’s responses. I don’t have to worry about how invested somebody else is in listening to things that are important to me. I get to reflect and think critically, unburdened by worries about the “entertainment” value of my innermost thoughts and concerns. I worried in the beginning, as an independent DukeEngager, that I would be lonely, even though I am not here alone (my friend and I designed our projects together); however, I am so glad that this is not a bigger program. I think it has been so important that I have had the space to marinate in my thoughts, to feel things fully without the distraction that groups can sometimes be for my ability to fully process.

Journaling has been my respite. It’s my way to cope with all the disturbing stories I hear every single day I’m here. Stories about intimate partner violence, teenage pregnancy, and sexual assault. Stories of young women who already feel their worth being questioned relative to their male peers; young women who, at 15, are already seeking answers, ways to affirm their value and stand up to the social constructs that actively seek to keep them quiet and stifled under the status quo. These stories remind me of the largely untouched moments of my history, the places in my mind that I usually actively avoid. I can’t avoid them now, and while it may be uncomfortable, it’s probably one of the greatest gifts this trip and project could give me.

These untouched parts of my life aren’t actually untouched. In reality, I’ve processed through them with professionals. I’ve shared my story with many of my friends and family; however, the truth is, there is no cure for trauma. It’s something that you will always carry with you. It’s something that will inform how you see and move through the world. Regrettably, it gets easier to avoid those thoughts in a high-powered environment like Duke University, so they kind of hit me like a brick once I touched down in Costa Rica.

Here in Costa Rica, the stories the women share swirl through my head. They remind me how inconsequential my work here really is. But by sharing my stories, by being here to simply listen and nod and affirm that “yes that f*cking sucks” and assure them that “no, there’s nothing you could have done to deserve that treatment” we can heal together. We don’t have to have to have untouched moments of our history. We can own our experiences, because we don’t have anything to be ashamed about – and we can actively work to make sure that others in this town don’t have to go through processing trauma and recovering alone.

I find it so funny that some people who go on service trips like to pretend that service is completely self-less. They assure themselves that the service they provide is independent of who they are as a person, and don’t even begin to think about the ways that helping others can have (and SHOULD have) an impact on themselves. I think that’s the beauty of DukeEngage deliberately being described as “civic engagement” instead of community service — the entire point of these experiences is to “engage,” not to have a one way exchange. If you leave DukeEngage without it having any impact on your outlook and worldview, I don’t believe you took the engage part very seriously. I’m grateful for my journal as a space for me to engage with my thoughts throughout this 8-week journey and grapple with our ideas to build more sustainable support systems for the women of this town.

Be on the lookout for later blog posts where I will go into more depth about the details of my Independent DukeEngage project 🙂